Next steps for the future of women’s equality

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I was watching some women’s sport last weekend, and then followed the controversy around women in the heart of golf at the Masters this weekend. There were a number of stories that intertwined to remind me again of how unequal our world remains. And I was encouraged once more to continue doing something about it. I need to declare an interest in this topic right at the start: I am the father of three daughters. Helping my daughters take their rightful place in the world, and being involved in changing the world so that it is more ready for them and their girl friends is very personal for me. It’s not a theoretical exercise or a nice thought experiment – it’s about the future for my family. It’s important.

My point is simple, but vital: women have made many strides in equality in the workplace over the last few decades, with as many women in work now as men in many countries. But there are three vital issues that need to take priority now: (1) the number of women in senior leadership positions (and their influence on corporate culture), (2) the remuneration women receive for the same work as their male counterparts, and (3) society’s attitude towards and valuing of women’s contributions.

The world of sport helps to make my point. As I write this, I am watching the final round of a remarkable Masters golf tournament at Augusta, one of the most prestigious golf clubs in the world. But the biggest story of the week was taking place off of the hallowed green fairways. Augusta does not allow women members. They only allowed black members in 1990, a mere 7 years before Tiger Woods first donned their famous green jacket. But they still have no female members. This year, that is interesting. Traditionally, the CEO of their major sponsor, IBM has been given honorary membership. This year, the CEO is a woman, Ginni Rometty. And she won’t be offered a membership (here’s the best article on the news conference where they refused to even offer an explanation). One can only hope that IBM soon show Augusta and the Masters what they think of that.

A weekend or so ago, I was watching the finals of the World Women’s Rugby 7s competition in Hong Kong. It was a brilliant game, with all of the tactics, speed, fitness, physicality (one of the biggest hits of the weekend in the last minute if you get to see the replays), skills and endurance (and nerves, both good and bad) evidenced by the men’s game. And just last week, I was alerted to the most remarkable sporting personality. Can you name the sportsperson who has played in World Cups for their country in two different sports, and made the decisive play in the championship games of both competitions, and is the youngest person to have represented their country (only aged 16) in two sports? No, I didn’t think so. I am a total cricket nut, but only discovered Ellyse Perry yesterday. How is that possible? She is remarkable!


It’s possible because we value men’s sporting achievements more than women’s. I know there are complex arguments about prize money in tennis majors, for example, but my point is about how much each of us (you and me, and everyone else) actually values women as sportspersons – as competitors, rather than eye candy (the top paid women sports stars are almost without exception the “good looking” ones who earn most of their money in sponsorships, rather than because of performance. Just think ‘Anna Kournikova’ for the extreme example of this). How much do we value women as competitors? Not as much as men. Two sports where this is not true (I think), are beach volleyball and athletics. Probably the reason volleyball gets attention is because the FIVB made a rule change a few years ago that enforces a MAXIMUM clothing coverage – a shame that women’s sport gets attention as it is sexualised. Why has Ellyse Perry not been featured on the covers of sports magazines around the world? Why can you find no details or even get the score of the women’s IRB Rugby 7’s matches on the official IRB Rugby 7’s website? And why no highlights on YouTube? We just don’t value women as much as men.

I don’t have quick fix solutions to the three issues I raised above. But I am sure the solution starts with a change of mindset. It’s a choice, really, that starts the changes needed.

This is not a women’s issue. Men need to get involved too. I wonder how we’d react if Augusta gold club continued to exclude blacks, or didn’t allow Jews to join, or discriminated against Catholics? We’d all refuse to watch, we’d target advertisers, we’d see protestors making their point on the course. In short, we’d force them to change pretty quickly. But, when it comes to women, we tut-tut a bit, and say how quaint and old fashioned it is, and say we hope they’ll change soon. And then? Nothing.

Until men get involved in this issue, it will be all too easy to maintain status quo. So, as in the sporting world, so too in the world of work. Men and women need to do at least three things:

  1. Actively seek opportunities to identify, deliberately raise the profile of, and value the contribution of women. I don’t know if I am talking about some form of “affirmative action” here. I don’t know if this needs to be a short, sharp, temporary step, or something more long term. Whatever it is, no-one can really argue that women don’t need this. The playing field is NOT level, and it will take deliberate, conscious efforts to make it so.
  2. Pay women the same for the same work. Simple. Do it.
  3. Learn from the women in your life. See the world through their eyes, and where possible, remove the obstacles to their success. Definitely make sure that they have membership rights to whatever your “clubs” are, and invite their contributions.

Oh, and one other thing you can do right now, is spend some time reading through the excellent feature section on women leaders put together by McKinsey.

I still think, though, that it starts with an attitude shift. Not in everyone else – in me. And in you.

Thanks to the world of women’s sport for this reminder.

10 April update: I really enjoyed this post by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. You can read it online here, or an extract below:

Here are a few basic suggestions to adapt corporate balancing initiatives to the reality of the times:

1. Make it strategic. Make it a business issue, not a women’s issue or a diversity issue.

2. Make it balanced. Focus on the ratio of women AND men, not just the percentage of women in all metrics and KPIs.

3. Make targets neutral. Aim for an acceptable ratio for both genders, not just women, e.g. a minimum of 40 percent of EITHER gender across ALL functions.

4. Make managers gender bilingual. Train ALL managers, men and women, to be skilled in managing across genders (just as you equip them to be competent across cultures).

5. Make managers accountable. Shift accountability for progress on gender balancing to managers of teams, rather than on individuals.

6. Celebrate “bilingual” competence. Most companies make a lot of noise about the women they promote. Also celebrate the managers who identified, developed and promoted them — that’s where the skills are lacking today.

7. Embed flexibility. Measure output, not input. Let high performers work where and when they want, as long as they deliver. Forget work/ life for women; create flexibility for all and help managers manage flexible, virtual teams.

8. Make careers flexible, too. Adapt linear, unbroken, up or out career patterns to recognize multiple career paths. If you identify all your high-potential talent between 30 and 35, you are likely excluding women and a growing number of men.

9. Never say the word “women.” dump the old language and become truly bilingual and inclusive of both men and women. Replace the common “women in leadership,” “assertiveness training for women,” “coaching and mentoring for women” with a focus on balance, talent or customers — and ensure that all your development programs are balanced within your target range now.

10. Stop accusing men. Stop running workshops called “unconscious bias,” “discrimination” or “stereotyping.” Position gender balancing as a business opportunity; you’ll find both men and women enthusiastically getting on board.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of gender consultancy 20-first as well as author of HOW Women Mean Business.

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